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Monday, February 09, 2009

Index Page

I saw a post by Ken Allan discussing what he calls an Index Page. Part of the inspiration for his index page comes from my First Time Visitor Guide page. As I describe on this page, the challenge that it tries to address is:
It can be daunting to visit a blog for the first time. The author(s) have been writing individual articles for months or years. This is my attempt to help you get a sense of topics of my blog and find some of the more interesting past articles.
Ken's Index Page description seems to try to tackle a similar, but possibly different issue:
my intention is to provide an index to popular posts and those of general interest only.
In fact, Stephen's recent discussion about Serialized Feeds while focusing quite differently, got me thinking again. He points out that the flow of information via an RSS (and thus how a reader experiences is most recent first). However, it was produced and the story is really from oldest to newest. And isn't a blog is best experienced through on-going reading over the course of time? Which leaves us with a question:

How do we create resources on our blogs that will help a
new reader or a
search visitor
understand what's there and orient themselves?

I distinguish the two types. A new reader is going to pick things up from there. A search visitor is going to explore and may come back periodically, but will not subscribe. I definitely do not have the right answer here, so I want to raise some issues and then I definitely would like to get ideas and help.

Index Page as Jump Off Point

Ken has some interests statistics collected around his Index Page. He looks at time on page and numbers of views. My statistics suggest that the Index Page is used as a quick jump off point to other pages. It actually has a fairly low exit percentage, but a below average time on page. Most people spend a significantly longer time on pages with meatier content.

Thus, I see one of the primary goals of the index page or however, we define these resources as being a place where you can understand the various topics of the blog and find the best posts on those topics.

Large Index Pages - Daunting

Ken Allan and I have discussed this before (see the First Time post for some of the discussion). Ken told me that his experience with my page:
It all made more sense to me on second time through, some months on though. At first reading, I found it a daunting post to take in.
I completely agree. That the size of both my page and Ken's page are quite large and overwhelming. This is probably the classic "wanting to tell everyone about all the great stuff."

The thoughts that we came up with was that realistically an Index Page needs a couple of parts:
  1. First Time Visitor information that gives just a few seminal posts that will get someone into the flow.
  2. An Index Page with lots of the topics and the best stuff related to that topic.
Index Page Worth the Effort?

I find myself updating the index page about every six months based on posts like 2008 2009.

However, it is a lot of work to manually keep this page up to date, so unless I've already pulled the information together, it's doesn't seem like it's worth the effort.

Ken suggested that it would be better if I periodically post to remind people to visit the page. This certainly increases the value.

At the same time, Index Page needs to be easy to keep current.

Design of an Index Page?

I'm not quite sure I get what a good Index Page design would have on it.

I'm hoping folks will help me with design ideas. How would you structure your page? Or better yet, create your index page?

Automated Index Page?

And here's the rub. The technology that is currently running eLearning Learning has some capability to produce something pretty close to an Index Page. It can show me the "best" (based on social signals) of my blog:

Best All Time Posts on eLearning Technology

It has best based on particular keywords:

Best eLearning 2.0 Posts from eLearning Technology

Which then quickly springboards into

Best on Adoption and eLearning 2.0 from eLearning Technology

Or it can show recent and best for a topic:

Recent and Best for eLearning 2.0

I regularly find myself using it to find my own content because the search is better than Blogger's search. For example, as I was creating this post, I looked at eLearning Technology Blogging.

Right now, there is no view for a blog that is like an Index Page, but maybe we can create it. So, let's start with what an Index Page should look like, and then I will try to figure out if I can help create something similar automatically.

In fact, I wonder if this raises a bigger, more interesting questions:
  • Should the design of a blog be for regular readers or for first time and casual readers?
  • Should there be multiple views of a blog?
  • What should those views be?
Wow, this could be a very interesting conversation with potentially big impact. I hope you will join in and help.


Kenji said...

What about the use of a tag cloud? It can be an easy way for people to navigate to the information they find relevant via tags that you assign to your blog posts. Unfortunately, if you haven't been tagging your posts thus far, it would take some work to tag from oldest to newest!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

It is a fascinating thing that the very device intended to help can in fact cause a hindrance. This is sometimes the case with indices.

My inclination is that we all use indices differently. My observation is that indices are treated (by some) as being old-fashioned. My other observations tend to suggest that some people view indices with interest, else why should they spend (on average) about 3 minutes examining my index page? It’ll be interesting to see how this figure varies with time.

Is this blogger dumb as?

Are they so amazed that this blogger in Middle-earth should be so daft as to create an index, that they’re stunned for a few minutes trying to take in all this stupidity? Or are they genuinely interested in having a look through the index to see what’s there? Who knows?

It's a thing of the past

The fact is, indices are likely to become a thing of the past, simply through the way that they have been eschewed by publishers, so that people no-longer have the opportunity to learn how to use them, and by the rise and rule of the search facility, which some think makes the index redundant.

I respect Sue Waters’ opinion. Yet I couldn’t help thinking her reaction to my index was kneejerkish. Maybe it’s not. She may well have insight that I haven’t got.

Different strokes

Using a search function and using an index require different skills. The 'search' tends to be less transparent, whereas indices of the sort we are discussing tend to be more visual and so are able to be scanned by the (trained) eye.

This last point may be what precludes some people from wanting to use an index, simply because they don’t know how to use it and haven’t had much chance to learn.

The crunch is that most people don’t know how to do a search properly. Fact. So we may go round in circles trying to rationalise what is the better system to use to find things.

Suck it and see

At the moment, I am experimenting. I don’t want to defend the index I chose to post simply because I don’t know what the best form is for an index. I think that you'd feel the same about this.

I think that what you are doing here is splendid. You are airing your reservations, your ideas and aspirations, and this is by far the best way to go about finding a better way, if one is to be found.

It's a web log after all

The point you make about the chronological nature of a blog is a good one. After all, the ‘blog’ or web log, is supposed to be a record or ledger of thoughts. There are several ways that this can be presented. Sue Waters has recently discussed the interlinking in a post to archived posts.

By giving the wherewithal to present the archiving, a visitor should be able to see the chronological nature of posts and, perhaps, be able to flick back through the history. Having done that in a thread, a reader may then feel that, perhaps, there are other threads as interesting. This is where the index may be of some use to an inquisitive visitor.

(On the other hand, the postmodernists among us will want to see an end to all this archiving - "who wants to read about The Grand Narrative?")

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

Anonymous said...

Ken and I have debated this previously regarding the benefits of index pages. Most of the time they are a lot of work for minimal return so you really do need to consider whether the time spent is good R.O.I.

Think about it. How often do you go to another person's blog to find specific information? Guaranteed either never or seldom. And the main people who you would return to are those that you know provide informative posts.

Reality of a blogger is we are only as good as our last post :) .

With good use of search, categories and tags on posts combined with making each post count is probably time better spent than creating index pages (however they can be useful for the blogger themselves).

Tony Karrer said...

@Kenji - I do like tag clouds, but I don't like manual tagging. Way too much work for me. It makes me want to tag things at a very high level. And if a new tag comes up, I have to revisit 700+ posts to figure out what to tag.

@Ken and @Sue - I'm going to have to follow your other discussions. I noticed you dodge the later questions of what this all should be.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony

Yes, I didn't broach your last question because I'm still looking for an answer. When I find one I'll let you know.

Catchya later

Sue Waters said...

Answer - first time visitors. These are the ones you want to get to subscribe and become loyal readers. Nice simple pleasing blog design that is inviting while the posts say I have something to offer pull up a chair.

Can think of quite a few well known Edubloggers whose blogs I took a long time to subscribe to because their design etc were a turn off.

Not sure what you mean re-multiple views.

Anonymous said...

I haven't made any effort to create an index page for my blog. I don't know who my readers are, except that most of them are one-time drop-ins. (I expect an uptick, since today's post has "online teens" in the title.) So I don't know why they came and I don't know what might make them stay. Even if I did, I don't know that I'd necessarily cater to that.

WordPress came with a search box; I've got automatic monthly archives; I've got categories. I doubt many people use them, and don't look to see.

Regular readers almost certainly are using RSS; at least that's true for my blog. So they're not even coming to me; in a sense, I'm going to them. They may click through to comment, but then they more or less know where they're going.

As for first-timers, they're likely arriving at a particular post via a search or a link on another blog. So they, too, have a (presumably) logical starting point.

If I thought there was value (for me, or for my hypothetical reader) in an index page, I'd call it something like "What's this blog about?" and stick it elsewhere, as I do with the fascinating "About Dave" page.

I think that's getting to the "multiple views" you're talking about. It also avoids cluttering up the two most common views: the default blog page, and the individual-post page.

Laurie said...

I arrived here thanks to following Ken's various posts in Middle-earth. Am enjoying the conversation. I have used tags for the two years I've been blogging. At one point I did go back and retag about 70 posts, and am now considering either doing away with using tags altogether, or revising all of the tags. LIke Tony, I like tag clouds, but the thought of actually revising and refining my tags is not something I look forward to doing.

For a very brief time I had a page (as opposed to a post - I use wordpress) that served as an index of all links to multimedia that had been mentioned in any of my posts, because they would not turn up in a search. Suffice it to say, I eventually deleted the page because it was a task that took time away from other activities.

However, when all is said and done, I've concluded that anyone popping over to my blog is there either by chance, because it was a search result, or they are a regular reader. Whatever the reason, I'm content to let them explore or not.


Tony Karrer said...

By the way - multiple views is the idea that there could be several ways to view a blog. Actually there are, but mostly it's either a list of posts Search results, tag, by date OR it's an individual post page. What we are talking about with the index or First Time page is another view that's a bit different. My question is: are there other views that would be interesting to see.

Sue - good point about the design. That's clearly a weakness in my blog. I also think there's a need to include a clear way to subscribe.

And, likely a first time visitor needs a bit more clue of what this blog is all about. What am I looking at.

Dave and Laurie - great point to consider how did they get there - mostly a:
* Search
* Link

In either case - Dave - yes they are on the right page for that particular inquiry. For most of the visitors they just want that info and they want to know who this is and what this blog is about. To Sue's point, they also need an easy call to action about how to subscribe.

Obviously, this makes the "Related Posts" important - that's the other likely call to action.

Laurie - you are right about letting them wander around. How do I wander?

First Time / Index Page

What else?

Should there be something else?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony

Yes, whither dost thou wander? I guess it all depends on what you want to have a gander at.

On a previous post I mentioned PostRank's widget on the right side-bar for most popular posts etc. A similar panel for Google Analytics was what I started with. These reside on the side-bar at all times and I'm experimenting at the moment.

I also mentioned archived links on posts - the 'related posts'.

I found, through careful observation, that these different lures (for that's what they are) can bring readers deep into the blog, so much so that the popularity of a past post can rise dramatically when the link to it is accessible from the side-bar or recent post. I also put this effect partly down to the age of my blog and its growing readership.

Catchya later

Michael Bromby said...

I like tag clouds too - but often find that click on a tag in the cloud gets the huge long and daunting list of posts I'd rather avoid.
What I think we need (all automated) is a tag cloud that takes you to a LIST of POST TITLES rather than full posts and this could be further embellished by adding other tags etc.
I'm thinking Google Reader in the LIST rather than the EXPANDED view.

Laurie said...

I love Michael's suggestion of a tag in the cloud taking the reader to a list of titles rather than the full posts! In fact, I'm going to send that in as a suggestion to wordpress (and will give him full credit :-)

Cheers, Laurie